Last Thursday’s European parliamentary elections were a contest that was never supposed to take place in the UK, but could have far-reaching consequences.
The Conservative party received its lowest share of the vote in any national election since 1832, haemorrhaging Leave supporters to the insurgent Brexit party and Remainers to the Liberal Democrats. The Tories are being punished by voters for their incompetent handling of the Brexit negotiations and their inability to extract Britain from the EU, despite Theresa May’s ill-advised statement that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Yet for all the Tories’ deep political travails, it is the Labour party that ought to find the European election results most disturbing.
For an opposition that aspires to be a national party of government, receiving just 14 per cent in a contest fought on an issue of overwhelming national importance ought to give pause for thought. Labour’s electoral performance was the worst in its history, in or out of government.
Remain-leaning Labour voters defected in droves to the Lib Dems and the Greens, even though neither party is riding a wave of national popularity, rather than to Change UK following an inept campaign.
The Lib Dems are still tainted by their support for George Osborne’s austerity programme, while the Greens struggle to break through on the national stage. Yet last Thursday, both parties became the natural home for Left voters angered by Labour’s apparent duplicity on Brexit.
To have a chance of victory in a general election, the Labour party has to show it is capable of getting a hearing across the country. Yet last Thursday the party was annihilated in Scotland and humiliated in Wales. In its northern English and metropolitan ‘heartlands’, Labour’s support fell dramatically. In the South of England, the party was all but wiped off the electoral map.
The grim European election result cannot be dismissed as a one off tactical squeeze. So what are the lessons Mr Corbyn’s party should digest?
The first is that Labour’s electoral coalition is being torn apart. Some party figures claim it is Nigel Farage’s Brexit party that poses an existential threat. They argue policy on Europe and immigration has to change to regain the trust of the party’s working-class supporters. The party chair, Ian Lavery, dismissed ‘left-leaning’ intellectuals for sneering at ordinary people who simply want the referendum result to be respected and for Britain to leave the EU.
Yet not all working-class areas voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, nor is hostility to immigration determined by economic status or class identity. Moreover, the reality is that socially liberal voters outnumber those hostile to diversity, immigration and Europe – as Professor John Curtice recently pointed out.
Whatever electoral calculations the leadership make, Labour will never be a convincing Eurosceptic, anti-immigration party. The danger is that socially liberal voters opposed to Brexit will give up on Labour permanently, drifting en masse to Vince Cable’s party and the Greens.
The second lesson is that Labour had made its position worse by refusing to define a coherent Brexit policy. The party’s so-called ‘six tests’ on Brexit are an inelegant fudge designed to cultivate as much ambiguity as possible as to Labour’s intentions. Waiting for the government to fall apart hardly represents a viable strategy. Labour has to articulate a credible alternative negotiating approach that the UK’s EU partners are likely to accept. The Lib Dems and the Greens performed well because they outlined a distinctive pro-European vision, while committing to a second referendum on the terms of Britain’s departure.
With their niche middle-class appeal, both those parties can afford to take the risk of ignoring the referendum result. But that doesn’t excuse Labour’s ineptitude. Shadow Cabinet figures still cannot agree on whether the priority in Brexit negotiations should be to preserve access to the single market safeguarding jobs, or accepting new restrictions on EU migration that ‘honour’ the outcome of the referendum. Jeremy Corbyn and his advisers imply a hard Brexit might be advantageous for Britain, liberating the UK from onerous rules on state aid. Voters are understandably baffled about Labour’s position.
The consequence is that the party appears increasingly irrelevant to national political debate. Despite the apparent triumph of winning 40 per cent of the vote in the 2017 general election, too few voters perceive Labour to be a viable party of government. Even fewer now regard Mr Corbyn as a potential Prime Minister.
More seriously, Labour apparently has little grasp of the historical forces that are reshaping British politics. If the fundamental question is whether you are ‘for’ or ‘against’ Brexit the traditional axis of Left and Right collapses. When identity politics encroaches on economic issues, traditional voter loyalties and cleavages break down. Brexit has cast a long shadow. Britain’s departure from the EU threatens to provoke a major realignment of the party system.
Meanwhile, historically ingrained tribalism prevents the Labour party from working constructively with other progressive forces. Labour’s antipathy to the Liberals originates in the early twentieth century rivalry between the two parties over who would inherit the centre-left vote.
Yet on an issue of such fundamental national importance as preventing a chaotic ‘hard’ Brexit, most voters find Labour’s narrow, sectarian mind-set difficult to comprehend. Where the liberal-left vote is divided, historically the consequence has been long-term Conservative rule.
Many in the Labour party, including the leadership, think the Tories are effectively finished because they have made such a mess of Brexit. They may be proved right. But the implications of the instability and turbulence that now pervades the Labour party ought not to be underestimated, underlined by the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s decision to carry out a statutory investigation into anti-semitism.
Mr Corbyn is under real political pressure, whether or not he changes course on a second referendum. Many on the Left of the party who believe that engagement with Europe is crucial to developing an alternative to neo-liberalism have decided that the Corbyn project does not, after all, provide an answer to the renewal of the British Left. As a consequence, Mr Corbyn’s leadership is on borrowed time.
By Patrick Diamond, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and British Politics at Queen Mary, University of London.